Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

21 OCTOBER, 2013

Coleridge, Plagiarist

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How to walk the fine line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft.

In his indispensable essay on memory, plagiarism, and the necessary forgettings of creativity, neurologist Oliver Sacks points to English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) as one of creative history’s most notorious perpetrators of plagiarism. In the altogether fascinating chronicle Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 (public library), biographer Richard Holmes unravels the psychological propensities of the poet’s mind that made his plagiarism possible — and, arguably, pleasurable — for him.

Coleridge’s plagiarisms began innocently enough: In his youth, he found himself enthralled by an obscure German book of spiritual meditations by Jean-Paul Richter, given to him by his friend Crabb Robinson, and began integrating Richter’s ideas into his own reflections as he was translating the German text. Holmes writes:

He drew comfort from Jean-Paul’s aphorisms and meditations in a particular way. He did not merely read and reflect on them, but incorporated them into his own Notebooks in various forms of translation, imitation, and reworked versions. … This method of privately translating and anthologizing Jean-Paul throws some light on the psychology of Coleridge’s later plagiarism. He had consciously used adapted translations in some of his earlier poetry. . . . But his prose translations from Jean-Paul suggest a less deliberate, more internalized process at work in his private Notebooks. It was almost as if, in “the long, long nights” of his study-bedroom at Hammersmith, he was holding a silent conversation with his confrère or brother-spirit in Leipzig.

In fact, this silent conversation — much akin to the marginalia that bond reader and writer — was for Coleridge a throbbing dialogue, which did include heavy borrowing, but also intellectual discourse and even dissent. In one instance, he called into question Jean-Paul’s overly sentimental analogies, writing to Robinson: “You admire, not the things combined, but the act of combination.” With this in mind, Holmes posits a caveat:

It would be absurd to describe Coleridge’s [private notebook] entries as any kind of plagiarism. But at the same time it is easy to see how, in other circumstances, use of such “adapted” material could open him up to such a charge. Coleridge was soon to find other German authors — notably A. W. Schlegel and Schelling — with whom he developed the same brotherly or symbiotic relationship. He read, translated, refined and expanded in his own way. But when he left the privacy of his study and published or lectured on the resulting text (without acknowledging his source) he inevitably opened himself up to the charge of plagiarism.

And open him up it did: This early practice of fusing his influences into his own private work — to the extent that any of our ideas are “our own” at all — congealed into a habit of mind that would render Coleridge chronically susceptible to plagiarism, whether conscious or not, in his public work. He was especially heavily influenced by Schelling, whose ideas permeated Coleridge’s magnum opus, his Biographia Literaria — at times with verbatim translations which Coleridge left unappropriated. Curiously, it was Crabb Robinson, a German scholar himself, who both acquainted Coleridge with his sources and first recognized the problem of plagiarism. And yet, rather than casting Coleridge’s borrowing in a black-and-white framework of morality, Robinson was able to see the grayscale of its psychological mechanisms. Holmes writes:

Significantly, [Robinson] did not consider it plagiarism, being fully aware of Coleridge’s vast background reading in German and British philosophy and criticism, and the originality of his particular interpretations. Moreover Coleridge was almost never dominated by his sources. Except in the particular case of Schelling, he never stole slavishly. His disagreements with German thought … produced his great originality of emphasis, those sudden developments of psychological insight, and vivid metaphorical explanation. He was always inspired to outdo his originals, to speculate further, to enquire more closely.

And yet the charges of plagiarism would become both more urgent and more inescapable by the time his Biographia was published in 1817. In it, Coleridge lifted entire passages from Schelling, word for word, without a sliver of attribution. But Holmes argues this was less a deliberate exercise in creative deception than a byproduct of Coleridge’s deteriorating mental health and weakening psychoemotional capacities. He had become addicted to opium, his addiction not only painfully blocking his bowels but also instilling in him crippling guilt and shame, and he had a falling out with William Wordsworth, his closest professional peer and likemind, as well as a dear friend and confidante. Holmes writes:

It cannot be a coincidence that this period corresponds to the worst time of his opium addiction, the extreme sense of his loss of Wordsworth, and the severest lack of professional self-confidence and feelings of almost paralyzing failure. At one level, then, plagiarism was a response to the profound, almost disabling anxiety and intellectual self-doubts. His German authors gave him support and comfort: in a metaphor he often used himself, he twined round them like ivy round an oak.

This, perhaps, is the moral of Coleridge’s questionable relationship with originality — while creativity is all about connecting things, and we are, as Austin Kleon put it, a mashup of what we let into our lives, and all ideas are, as Mark Twain observed, substantially second-hand, the line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft is often fine, but learning to walk it both consciously and conscientiously is where true creative integrity lies.

The rest of Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 is equally revelatory of one of modern history’s greatest lives and the extraordinary, complicated mind that inhabited it. Complement it with Coleridge on what a poem is.

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18 OCTOBER, 2013

Ray Bradbury on How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity

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How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.

Susan Sontag argued that lists confer value and guarantee our existence. Umberto Eco saw in them “the origin of culture.” But lists, it turns out, might be a remarkably potent tool for jostling the muse into manifesting — a powerful trigger for that stage of unconscious processing so central to the creative process, where our mind-wandering makes magic happen.

In Zen in the Art of Writing (public library), one of these ten essential books on writing, Ray Bradbury describes an unusual creative prompt he employed in his early twenties: He began making long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas and potential titles for stories:

These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

The lists ran something like this:

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

Bradbury would later come to articulate his conviction that the intuitive mind is what drives great writing, but it was through these lists that he intuited the vital pattern-recognition machinery that fuels creativity. Echoing Einstein’s notion of “combinatory play,” Bradbury considers the true value of his list-making:

I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So he went on making lists, hoping they’d spark these fruitful associations that the rational mind tucks away in the cabinets of “useless knowledge”:

THE MEADOW. THE TOY CHEST. THE MONSTER. TYRANNOSAURUS REX. THE TOWN CLOCK. THE OLD MAN. THE OLD WOMAN. THE TELEPHONE. THE SIDEWALKS. THE COFFIN. THE ELECTRIC CHAIR. THE MAGICIAN.

Out on the margin of these nouns, I blundered into a science fiction story that was not a science-fiction story. My title was “R is for Rocket.” The published title was “King of the Grey Spaces,” the story of two boys, great friends, one elected to go off to the Space Academy, the other staying home.

Bradbury, who has since shared timeless wisdom on withstanding the storm of rejection, recalls:

The tale was rejected by every science-fiction magazine because, after all, it was only a story about friendship being tested by circumstance, even though the circumstance was space travel. Mary Gnaedinger, at Famous Fantastic Mysteries, took one look at my story and published it. But, again, I was too young to see that “R is For Rocket” would be the kind of story that would make me as a science-fiction writer, admired by some, and criticized by many who observed that I was no writer of science fictions, I was a “people” writer, and to hell with that!

I went on making lists, having to do not only with night, nightmares, darkness, and objects in attics, but the toys that men play with in space, and the ideas I found in detective magazines.

Susan Sontag's list of her favorite things, illustrated. Click image for details.

But more than merely sharing the amusing story of his youth’s quirky habit, Bradbury believes this practice can be enormously beneficial for any writer, both practicing and aspiring, as a critical tool of self-discovery:

If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

He offers himself as a testament:

I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.

Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s me”; or, “That’s an idea I like!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.

It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads, which is to say, their fantasies, their frights.

He urges the aspiring writer:

Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…

Shortly before his death, Bradbury speaks to his official biographer, Sam Weller — who also conducted Bradbury’s lost Comic Con interview — and revisits the subject of list-making in a Paris Review interview:

Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.

(That’s exactly what Roland Barthes did in 1977, to a delightful effect.)

Zen in the Art of Writing remains a must-read in its entirety, and a fine addition to the collected advice of great writers. Complement it with Bradbury on writing with joy and this fantastic 1974 documentary on his fantastical mind.

For more wisdom on writing, see Stephen King on the art of “creative sleep,” Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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17 OCTOBER, 2013

The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth

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“When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.”

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.” As we’ve seen, one of the most insidious forms of such habitual autopilot — which evolved to help lighten our cognitive load yet is a double-edged sword that can also hurt us — is our mercilessly selective everyday attention, but the phenomenon is particularly perilous when it comes to learning new skills. In a chapter of Maximize Your Potential (public library) — that fantastic guide to making your own luck, the sequel to 99U’s blueprint to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine — science writer Joshua Foer explores the mechanisms that keep us from improving and the strategies we can use to disarm them. He sketches out the problem:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.

And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.

Color restoration of archival Einstein photograph by Mads Madsen

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. Fortunately, psychologists have found a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode — and it turns out the benefits of reflective failure and the art of making mistakes play a key role, something to which J. K. Rowling has attested. Foer writes:

Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Foer first bumped up against the OK Plateau while working on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (public library) — the fascinating record of his quest to dramatically improve his memory’s capacity using a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. After spending several months learning to memorize a deck of playing cards, he rapidly plateaued, but his memory-mentor assured him this was the standard course of improvement. Intrigued, Doer dusted off the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, the researchers who had discovered those three stages of skill acquisition — cognitive, associative, and autonomous. The autonomous stage in particular was what interested Foer the most:

During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

Early psychologists, Foer tells us, used to believe the OK Plateau signified the upper limit of one’s innate capacity — in other words, they thought the best we can do is the best we could do. But Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson and his team of performance psychologists, who have studied the phenomenon closely, found that the single most important factor for overcoming the OK Plateau to become truly exceptional at a skill is the same thing that turned young Mozart into a genius and that drives successful authors to their rigorous routines. Foer writes:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

And yet, Foer is careful to point out, the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement — it is, rather, its deliberateness that drives progress. In fact, studies have shown that in areas of expertise as diverse as basketball and chess the number of years one has spent honing the respective skill correlates only weakly with the degree of mastery and level of performance. What Ericsson found, rather, is that the best way to transcend the OK Plateau and reboot the autonomous stage is to cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing:

Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

Complement Maximize Your Potential and Moonwalking with Einstein, both excellent reads in their entirety, with philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make mistakes that improve us and some of today’s most celebrated contemporary creators on how to break through your creative block.

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16 OCTOBER, 2013

The Science of Dreams and Why We Have Nightmares

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The psychology of our built-in nocturnal therapy.

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” Freud argued in his influential treatise The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. “The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1940. “In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future,” Alain de Botton told a little kid who wanted to know about dreaming. But what, exactly, are dreams and why do we have them? Modern psychology has given us a fair amount of insight on the creative purpose of daydreaming, but — aside from Rosalind Cartwright’s compelling research on how dreams and REM sleep mediate our negative emotions — the study of dreams has largely stagnated since Freud’s day.

In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library) — one of the best science books of 2012, exploring what happens while you sleep and how it affects your every waking moment, which also gave us this fascinating read on sleep and the teenage brainDavid K. Randall traces psychologists’ evolving understanding of why we dream.

Freud’s theories — premised on the idea that the symbolism of dreams encoded the dreamer’s subconscious desires and concerns, often of a sexual nature — were systematically challenged and dismissed over the course of the 20th century, but without much of a viable alternative theory. It wasn’t until Calvin Hall, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University, set out to record and catalog people’s dreams in the 1950s that glimmers of illumination began piercing the darkness shrouding this psychological mystery. Randall writes of Hall’s empirical findings, which came diametrically opposed to Freud’s theories:

By the time [Hall] died in 1985, Hall had synopses of more than fifty thousand dreams from people of all age groups and nationalities. From this large database, he created a coding system that essentially treated each dream like it was a short story. He recorded, among other things, the dream’s setting, its number of characters and their genders, any dialogue, and whether what happened in the dream was pleasant or frightening. He also noted basics about each dreamer as well, such as age, gender, and where the person lived.

Hall introduced the world of dream interpretation to the world of data. He pored through his dream collection, bringing numbers and statistical rigor into a field that had been split into two extremes. He tested what was the most likely outcome of, say, dreaming about work. Would the dreamer be happy? Angry? And would the story hew close to reality or would the people in the dream act strange and out of character? If there were predictable outcomes, then maybe dreams followed some kind of pattern. Maybe they even mattered.

Hall’s conclusion was the opposite of Freud’s: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, Hall could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. A dream featuring a man whom the dreamer doesn’t know in real life, for instance, almost always entails a plot in which the stranger is aggressive. Adults tend to dream of other people they know, while kids usually dream of animals. About three out of every four characters in a man’s dream will be other men, while women tend to encounter an equal number of males and females. Most dreams take place in the dreamers’ homes or offices and, if they have to go somewhere, they drive cars or walk there. And not surprisingly, college students dream about sex more often than middle-aged adults.

In other words, he found that dreams are far from surreal wonderlands where our imaginations roam wildly — rather, they are explorations of our mundane concerns, recast in a light only slightly removed from reality.

And yet theories continue to differ. Ernest Hartmann, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, studies the content of dreams and how it relates to their function:

Hartmann sees dreams as a form of built-in nocturnal therapy. In dreams, he says, the mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening. … Hartmann argues that the life of early man was filled with the kind of traumas — watching friends gored by animals with sharp tusks or fall through holes in the ice and drown, just to give you two possibilities — that few people experience today. Those who were able to regain their emotional balance after living through a traumatic event were more likely to survive over the long run than those who dwelled on the negative.

As evidence of his theory, Hartmann points to the fact that the mind has a tendency to replay scary or harrowing experiences in dreams almost exactly as they happened in real life for several nights after the event. … For some people, however, the brain gets stuck replaying traumas, like a band that only knows one song. When the brain fails to set aside the event in its long-term memory — a move that researchers see as a sign that the emotional system has come to accept what happened and can now put it into perspective — a person may experience recurring nightmares, which is one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Grim as this may sound, however, let’s not forget that dreams also help us do the very opposite — they allow our brains to digest and regulate negative emotions. And, if all else fails, there’s always the option of training yourself to control your dreams.

Dreamland remains a must-read in its entirety. Complement it with the science of internal time.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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